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A racing trip to Belgium

19 October 2015

YCS is a big fan of cyclocross for young riders of all ages. There’s already a great cyclocross scene in the UK, of course. But it’s also surprisingly easy for adventurous families to make a racing trip to Belgium, the heartland of cyclocross, where they can combine an event with a family weekend away.

Sam Asker of Welwyn Wheelers had always wanted to emulate his Belgian heroes, so last season he and his dad James did a little homework and made their first ever cyclocross racing trip to mainland Europe.

Here are their own accounts of their mini-adventure, published to encourage other young riders considering taking the same step.

Sam’s story

Before the race…

I was nervous before the race because it was all new to me. It was my first race outside the UK so I was also excited at the same time. I’d already looked at a video of the course and it looked good – especially the flyover!

I expected the race to be hard and fast and it didn’t disappoint. It was also technical, with plenty of switchbacks and mud, but there wasn’t much climbing (apart from the flyover) and there were no off-camber sections.

I prepared for it in the same way to the races in the UK with my normal combination of rollers and turbo work during the week before the event. I also had plenty of rest prior to the race. I try and keep this routine the same every race as it seems to work for me. It also kept my nerves at a minimum, and I tried to make it “just another race” even though it wasn’t really – this was my first race in Belgium, the home of cyclocross!

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I travelled down with Dad to Kent and crossed to France through the Channel Tunnel. We stayed overnight in a hotel in Ghent which meant I could get a good night’s sleep before the race and a good breakfast in the morning. On the way down to the race we passed signs for Koksijde and the Vlaanderen Lion. We were in “Cross Country”…

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I was glad we got there early because it gave me plenty of time to ride the course between races.

The race…

The race itself was quite similar to the UK apart from the gridding and the course layout. The gridding was random and was simply based on your race number. I was gridded on the third row. Once in position it’s a bit more uncontrolled with people jostling for position within the grid, crossing wheels and mixing rows before the race actually started.

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The course was technical but not because of obstacles and hills, but due to its layout with lots of tight corners. It certainly made the most of a compact venue.

When the race started it was a bit of a shock as I couldn’t understand what the Commissaire was saying so I had to react to the other riders’ starts as my signal to go. The first sprint was on a road section leading to a 90 degree right turn into thick mud. I didn’t get the best start but this also helped me avoid a pile-up on the first corner. I came through that corner in 24th position.

As the race progressed I began to work my way through the field. I tried to make sure I got right past them to create an instant gap because I didn’t want them holding my wheel. Gradually the field thinned out as it does in the UK.

At one point I was chasing a group of four riders down the start/finish straight and I was three or four bike lengths off the group. As they came to the right-hand turn into the mud they braked early and I saw my chance, and with disc brakes I was able to leave my braking till the last moment. I went for the inside line and luckily made it through the mud, through and clear of the chasing group. I was really pleased with that move and one of the locals came and spoke to me after the race. He said my overtake on that corner was “proper Belgian racing!”

After that I made up another couple of places and finished 14th overall.

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What I learned…

As a local race it was really competitive. The course was more technical than UK local races because of the way it was set out, with all those twists and turns in the mud. I liked that.

I really enjoyed the course and the atmosphere which was great, with the large crowd being able to follow you around the course and encourage you at nearly all points of the race.

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By following the locals I was able to pick better lines around some of the corners and through the mud. It was really good fun and I feel like I learnt a lot.

I think this first experience of Belgian racing will help me technically, and it highlights areas for improvement. For example, I need to carry more speed through corners and improve my starts. Some of that will only come as I grow and become stronger but there is still plenty to work on.

It has also helped me with confidence – I realise that although there are differences I’m capable of racing anywhere. I’m sure I will still be nervous before races but that won’t be because of where the race is held.

James’s story

Before the race…

It seemed as though it had taken forever for the day to come round. After discussions with Kieran Dunlea, Mark Walker and the Eastern Cross Belgian Group the weekend race in Belgium was upon us.

I don’t know who was more worried: me or Sam! As a parent you try to make sure everything is well-planned but this was new to both of us. Emails with the organiser of the race (with the help of Google Translate!) reassured me that everything was in place and we were good to go.

We travelled down from Suffolk via Eurotunnel and then drove about an hour and a half to Ghent where we stayed the night. Looking back, we could have gone there and back in a day including the race, but a good night’s sleep was important if Sam was going to do his best. Also, not having to rush kept the stress levels down for both of us.

About half an hour from Ghent towards Calais was the small town of Lichtervelde. The race took place on the outskirts of the town with a short quarter-mile stretch of road being closed for two days. Both ends of this road entered a farmer’s field and onto the main area of the course. Here there were a couple of sections of thick mud and a scaffolding flyover – just like at the Super Prestige races!

Getting there early enabled Sam to practice the course and watch some of the younger races. Even the U8s and U10s rode the full course. A nice touch for the younger riders was that they were taken round the course as a group before the race, stopping at each technical section. The lead rider would then ride the section showing the children what to do, before each of the children would then attempt it themselves. The whole group encouraged each and every rider. Nobody got left behind. It’s something perhaps that we should consider for youth racing here in the UK too.

The race…

The race itself was fast and furious, but from my perspective it was more fun to watch than anything we’ve done in the UK. That’s not to say we are doing anything wrong over here, but there is a pressure that both parents and riders feel. The better you do the more the expectation grows and, for me, it was a real pleasure to watch my son race with nothing at stake. Nobody knew us and we had nothing to win or lose. It was racing simply for the fun of it.

What I learned…

After the race finished we headed back to the sign-on area where the locals were gathered. It was a great atmosphere – probably aided by the Belgian beer that was flowing… We chatted with a few of the locals and then headed back to the Tunnel and off home, both happy that we’d had a great weekend and a fantastic experience in Belgium.

Will we do it again, for sure! 🙂

Sam & James would like to thank Mark Walker, Sean Dunlea, Kieran Dunlea, and the Eastern Region Youth CX Development group for their advice & support.

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A racing trip to Belgium

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